Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven,Berlioz
LABELS: Signum
WORKS: Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 2
PERFORMER: Philharmonia Orchestra/ Esa-Pekka Salonen


 Don’t ever be tempted to typecast Esa-Pekka Salonen as a hardline modernist. The Finnish composer may have launched himself as the Philharmonia’s current principal conductor/artistic advisor in September 2008 with a nine-month survey of early 20th-century Viennese scores (including an impressive version of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, released by Signum and favourably reviewed by Michael Tanner in December) but in this Symphonie fantastique, recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall later that same month, he reveals himself as a powerful Berliozian too. 

Berlioz was always a Classicist at heart, despite the hyper-Romantic trappings, and – with all the key instrumental solos and still arrestingly original effects given due prominence – there’s a passionate restraint about Salonen’s reading that is far more telling than many more overtly histrionic versions.

The slow movement in particular shows a masterly control of tempo and texture, clearly prioritising musical imperatives over mere pictorialism, yet with no shortage of electricity in the air, either emotional or elemental. While Salonen in no way underplays the inexorable March to the Scaffold or the gallumphing grotesqueries of the concluding Witches’ Sabbath, his account of the music can clearly stand on its own without recourse to the crutch of Berlioz’s over-heated literary narrative. 

The coupling is less convincing. Berlioz was of course heavily influenced by Beethoven and, in his Memoirs, admiringly recalled hearing a Leonore overture – he doesn’t say which of the three – played ‘with rare precision and verve’.


Salonen certainly supplies the first, if not the second: at 15 minutes, his account is more sluggish than Klemperer’s, though the loss of tension midway is more Beethoven’s fault than his. But can Berlioz really have heard and admired a work that his hero rightly rejected? If not, what’s it doing on this CD? Mark Pappenheim